LSU’s stay didn’t last long in Music City.
Without its suspended coach Will Wade, but with the return of guard Javonte Smart, the SEC regular-season champions couldn’t hold off Florida and lost to the Gators 76-73 in the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament on Friday at Bridgestone Arena. Freshman guard Andrew Nembhard’s three-pointer with just one second left won it for the Gators.
Not that a nail-biter should have been a surprise. These two teams played a pair of overtime games during the regular season. Florida won 82-77 at LSU in overtime on Feb. 20. Then the Tigers returned the favor, beating the Gators 79-78 in overtime in Gainesville on March 6.
The difference this time was the absence of Wade, the LSU head coach who according to a Yahoo Sports report was allegedly intercepted on a wiretap in 2017 talking about a “strong-ass offer” for Smart, then a Louisiana high school star. Wade was suspended last week by the school’s administration. Smart was held out of the Tigers’ win over Vanderbilt to end the regular season.
Smart was back on the floor Friday, scoring 13 points on five-of-seven shooting. “I had nothing to do with that, said Smart when asked if he had knowledge of the offer discussed in the wiretap. As for when he found out he was playing Friday, “I found out this morning. Coach (Tony Benford) called me and told me I could play.”
Wade’s stand-in played a key role in the outcome when he picked up a technical foul with 3:45 remaining. Florida’s Keyontae Johnson had hit a three-pointer just as LSU’s Naz Reid was called for running over Florida center Kevarrius Hayes. The officials ruled that the shot counted, which caused an eruption from Benford, who was hit with the technical. KeVaughn Allen made both foul shots. Then Hayes made one-of-two free throws. It was a six-point play and a 66-63 Florida lead.
“Naz kind of pushed through the screen, the pin down of the defender,” Benford said. “The ref blew his whistle before the shot and they counted the shot. I just questioned the ref on it. Looking back I shouldn’t got a T on it.”
Benford also said, “We’re not going to get any calls. When you’re an interim coach you’re not going to get the calls.”
Reid finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds. He buried two ice-water three-pointers to tie the game -- first at 70-all with 59 seconds left, then at 73-all with 13.5 remaining. After an LSU timeout, Florida worked the ball around until Keyontae Johnson found Nembhard for the open three-pointer from the top of the key. It went in and LSU was out.
“I knew he was going to hit it,” said the Gators’ Keyontae Johnson. “He’s been working hard every Sunday taking shots with Coach (Mike) White.”
LSU led 23-9 early, but is the loss a blessing in disguise for the Tigers? They can retreat to Baton Rouge and avoid the questions an SEC Tournament title would have prompted. “Do you think your title will be vacated?” “How much has the Wade controversy affected the team?” That sort of thing.
As for Florida, surely Friday’s win stamped the Gators NCAA Tournament ticket. The Gators are now 19-14 overall with two wins over LSU to their credit.